Tony Webb is from Swansea. Down a Sparrow Lane, his debut collection, reflects that, fuelling a large bulk of the poems with Swansea’s roads, place names and history. For people from the area, reading the book is akin to going for a stroll down the road, down to Quay Parade, Swansea Market, or the castle wall (what is left of it), though Webb avoids the clichéd targets: Three Cliffs, Oxwich; Mumbles is only mentioned in passing.
The book is not a standard poetry collection; also thrown into the cauldron are song lyrics and short stories. Tony Webb, as well as a poet, is the songwriter, guitarist and vocalist in the Acoustic Folk/Rock band Sparrow Lane.
Supplementary genres certainly lend variety but the poems are far superior and should not be drowned out by support acts. Despite the book’s Welsh flavour, ‘North Tawton’, one of the more accomplished poems, takes us to England. The small town of the title is in Devon and was, for a while, home to Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, a couple famous on the literary scene and a source of fascination for many poets; Tony Webb evidently among them. In a village with no plaques or tearooms and a post-office boy who was half-informed:
We drove up the lane,
parked carefully and softly.
We, who did not want to intrude.
We two intruders.
Hughes and Plath are the Posh and Becks of poetry. Royalty. There is that reverence, intimidation almost, coming into play. But uppermost in the minds of the ‘we’ of the poem is common decency, respect for a couple who were, at the end of the day, still people, though this realization hit home overdue when they noticed the sign:
No visitors welcome
We’d sensed it before we read it.
Returning to the car,
we knew we could not disturb that
which had been unsettled so many times.
Song lyrics in a poetry collection, though largely redundant, do come attached with a risk factor, in that there is always the possibility that the poems will mimic the lyrics, becoming disorientated and stubborn. In Down a Sparrow Lane, at least, Tony Webb keeps the poems’ identity intact, rarely getting confused by forms; arguably with the exception of one poem, ‘The Boy in the Subway’, which reads too much like the stories though the varying length of the lines would suggest it is a poem, though it does contain, in the poet’s defence, more compassion and relatable human lapses than all the stories.
Still in England, in ‘London, New Year’s Eve’, Webb resignedly agrees to celebrate in the event with his family in the capital, already knowing he is going to abhor the experience (but ‘This time though, I’d promised’). And abhor it he does:
Bemused that people had been here since four,
down by The Thames and stunned by Tradition.
I could not believe that the crowd would grow bigger.
Bored and cold,
I stuck it out until the dark exploded.
Over in seconds.
The night is a disaster, largely down to the crowds, manic, suffocating. It all ends with:
A long, shivering walk back to the hotel.
Never to be repeated,
Back in Wales, the best of the short stories, ‘He Only Swore in Welsh’, reflects a childhood in Swansea, though not a childhood one might expect. Tony Webb grew up in a village called Pentre-dwr, labelled throughout Swansea as Little Moscow, so-called because most of the men living in the village at that time were communists. His grandfather, the battery of the story, was obsessed with Russia but the story is embedded in Wales and Welshness, even down to the chilling expletives emanating from his grandfather.
Other stories don’t fare so well and again it is the poems which shine through, from a stark warning in ‘The Firework’ to the most moving, though quietly unsettling, moment in the collection where Webb swallows his pride, and his bruises, to attend his father’s eightieth birthday party. If there is a follow-up to this debut it will hopefully focus on these more awkward, but more intriguing, incidents. And more on poetry rather than prose.
Down a Sparrow Lane, 50 pages, Pinewood Press, £6.00